The genesis of this recording is quite interesting. Karajan had ended his association with EMI by the early 1960s, recording in Berlin with DGG and Vienna with Decca (and Decca for RCA)/ Part of the reason was that he calculated that he could "rule the roost" at DGG, and could record basically what and when he wanted to. This did not go quite according to plan, and lack of support for his Ring project and the recording of another Ring (Bohm-it was recorded by DGG) and a proposed Beethoven cycle by Bohm were not to his liking. He saw an opportunity to expand his own options, and EMI's attempts to lure him back to the fold in the late 60s were successful. It is ironic then that what is one of the most-arguably THE most- rewarding result of this resumed collaboration was this Meistersinger never intended for him in the first place.
Following Barbirolli's enormously successful return to Opera with his justly acclaimed Butterfly, and slightly less successful Otello, this project was due to be the crowning glory of Glorious John's autumnal opera revival.
Regrettably, Barbirolli died tagically before this could be realised, but VEB Schallplatten, EMI's East German partners were keen to proceed anyway.
Only then did Karajan "come into the frame", as it were, and he vacillated about the project virtually up to the last moment, politics both musical and national being major issues-in the end EMI were prepared to proceed with Jochum, but Karajan decided positively-with glorious results.
This issue is the same remastering as for the Great Classics series, and only the packaging is different. It is a glorious reading, warm, witty, grand and affectionate-the tales of the great relationship between Karajan and the Dresden Staatskapelle are many, and the results are palpable in the glorious playing. The recording is superb, detailed, warm and brilliant by turns.
Some criticise K for beautifying the work too much-I fail to see how this is a bad thing!
The casting is in general the best of any rivals-Kollo was never better nor is there a better Walther to be heard, Donath is grossly underrated-she is simply superb, balancing innocence and archness perfectly, the secondary lovers are superb, Ridderbusch as sonorous a Pogner as one could wish for-and even the Nightwatchman is a bass called Moll-wonder what happened to him?
The 2 areas of contention are Sachs and Beckmesser.
Whether Karajan had wanted him for the role or not, the politics of the day dictated that any recording made in Dresden would feature local hero Theo Adam.. end of!
I do not propose to get into the Adam/Hotter debate-Hotter had passed his best nearly 20 years earlier so comparisons are odious. Adam sings beautifully, with steady, carefully modulated tone and is especially fine in the contemplative monologues. He does however lack warmth and humour at times, and is a rather straight faced Sachs. In the end, better a well sung straight Sachs than a wobbly heavily characterised one!
The Beckmesser of Geraint Evans is at the opposite extreme.
He was a "fixture" when Karajan inherited the project and his Beckmesser is of the worst old-fashioned type-a "mumming " cariacature which makes him an odious bumbling idiot, delivered in a sort of "sprechgesang" normally reserved for the Nibelungs. This does not work for me at all, and is I believe at odds with what Wagner intended. Others may feel differently.
Beckmesser is undoubtedly a cariacature in any event-of Wagner's critical nemesis Hanslick, so there is no need to "pile it on" so to speak.
I will also not enter into the debate about the supposed anti-semitic message conveyed in this work-long and bitter argument has taught me that if you think it's there, then it is, and if you don't, it's not.
The serious contender to this recording at this price is of course the Kubelik, of which I am not such an admirer as others-and all the available recordings are flawed to some degree. Therefore, I would recommend the Karajan as first choice if outlay is not an issue. At mid-price, Sawallisch and Jochum are both uneven but ultimately excellent value performances and recordings.
Classic recordings from the Mono era are in a different league, but that is for another forum. Karajan's best opera recording? Parsifal is a contender, but I would not seriously dispute those who award it to this exalted set. Stewart Crowe
on 13 October 2012
Not having listened to Meistersinger for some years I had forgotten what a great work it is. The last act in particular, making the final cd in this set over an hour of concentrated musical excellence, unfolding apparently endless dramatic and lyric mastery and compositional imagination. What extraordinary cultural achievements this, Tristan and the Ring are.
And this is a wonderful recording, too. Climaxes controlled with impeccable timing and really fine chorus work complement the sort of performances you would expect from this cast of major 20th century artists. I liked Geraint Evans very much too, despite criticism of his performance in this I've read elsewhere.
No doubt there are other recordings equally fine, but I could hope for none better. Beyond criticism, in my opinion. Highly recommended and currently at a very attractive price.
on 3 January 2014
Like 95% of us, I'm a pretender in Wagner and abjectly so. With no melody in sight, I asphyxiate in that first hour of Siegfried: surely we have a right to be bored by such a dynamic? I'm more likely to cross the Simpson Desert in February on foot than traverse Rienzi. I've yet to make it through the Flying Dutchman. Lohengrin, its Prelude aside, bores me to this day.
Hitherto, I have resisted Meistersinger for the better part of three decades, declaring that it was a bridge too far and citing the brevity of life. How asinine I was! This Karajan recording from late 1970 has led to a `novus ordo saeclorum'.
I have contacts in the 5%. Some of them adore this recording; others do so with reservations, highlighting Theo Adam (Sith-Lord of Wobble), Evans' caricature of Beckmesser and the timbre of Kollo; whilst acknowledging its obvious strengths, a few dismiss it per se. I daresay it will arouse controversy until kingdom come.
On my part - amateur though I be - its joie de vivre is sovereign. The triumph is underwritten by the sumptuousness of the Dresden Staatskapelle and Karajan's mastery. It's Wagner at his most loveable. No wonder his buddy Nietzsche was so envious of the "Magician" - there is no greater affirmation of life (and refutation of `Afterworldsmen') than the Quintet from Act 3: Wagner says in a few bars what it takes Fred a few thousand words to grind out. Here is humanity with all its foibles and aspirations. It says: the world is enough; there is a time for everything under the sun. Catharsis ensues long before the final chorus.
I love this. As one of the five percenters (Ralph Moore) said recently, it's more than the sum of its parts. Long may it continue to divide and proselytise!
on 27 August 2015
Still my favourite Wagner opera and a fantastic vintage recording. I have Ben Heppner/Sawallisch recording which is also magnificent but Theo Adam as strong affable Sachs, Rene Kollo as a genuine heroic Walther, Helen Donath as a sublime Eva, Peter Schreier as a precosious Peter, a very young Kurt Moll playing the blink and you'll miss it Night Watchman, and of course a delightfully over-acted, rumbustious, bitter-sweet and very funny Beckmesser in the hands of Sir Geraint Evans in his prime. Karajan is of course on top form, he had the best of everything at his fingertips so how couldn't he be with an orchestra like that. I was brought up on this recording and I still am enthralled but.
I do not mean to sound blasé or spoiled when I say that, as a very experienced listener to opera recordings, I was fairly sure that I knew what this recording would sound like before, at the urging of a fellow reviewer-friend, I finally got around to purchasing and listening to this celebrated recording, now 43 years old but still sounding remarkably good. Virtually nothing has confounded my expectations, as I knew what to expect from having read the opinions of a good few, trusted, fellow reviewers.
First of all, the sound holds up remarkably well: spacious, well balanced, rich, clear and full, without distortion - a model of analogue recording at its best, as are the playing of the Staatskapelle and the conducting of Karajan, who brings his customary ear for detail, sonority and sense of sweep to the proceedings; this is peerless, instrumentally.
The singing offers some of the best casting available in 1970, given that it was an inviolable rule that any recording made in East Germany Dresden in that era had to feature favourite son, bass-baritone Theo Adam, bothersome wobble and all. He cannot hope to emulate the authority and beauty of tone of such as Thomas Stewart for Kubelik but does not let the side down, being an otherwise sensitive and intelligent singer who can bring some of the gravitas of an experienced Wotan to his Sachs plus something of a twinkle. His tonal emission is not always, by any means, unsteady and the basic sound is attractive. Any Sachs who can carry the listener with him during the great peroration of the opera to German Art has conquered the part; Adam rises to the shameless nationalistic exaltation and exultation the sentiments demand and he is ably supported by a lusty Staatsoper Chorus, underpinned by terrific timpani.
In certain moods and depending on the state of his voice, I find myself irked by Kollo's dry tenor but the bleat is under control in these, his earlier glory years, and although he is no Heppner or Konya, he suggests youthful ardour without too much discolouring or forcing. The firm beauty of Karl Ridderbusch's bass as Pogner is a distinct advantage, while Helen Donath's pure, sweet, girlish soprano is very apt for Eva, with just about enough power and penetration to sustain her long lines. Her exchanges with Sachs are delightful, steering the right course between arch humour and some slight erotic frisson whereby the possibility of romantic interest between the widower Sachs and the marriageable girl still hovers in the background. Zoltan Kélémen makes a very characterful, positive Fritz Kothner and there are a good few soon-to-be-famous names in the Dresden cast, including a thirty-two-year-old Kurt Moll as a typically sonorous Night Watchman. The acid-test of any "Meistersinger" is the serenity of the Act 3 Quintet; Karajan and his singers certainly weave magic here.
On the debit side, Geraint Evans's Beckmesser is a clumsy, whining caricature of a role which, as Johannes Martin Kränzle demonstrated recently at Glyndebourne, may be both beautifully sung and remain very funny without resorting to the verbal equivalent of mugging. It was, however, how Beckmesser was usually sung before the advent of a subtler school of acting. Peter Schreier, pace the claims of a fellow-reviewer, would hardly ever have made a suitable von Stolzing but as I have never liked his voice and have always found Wagner's David something of a bore with his over-written, etiolated role, I suppose I am pre-disposed to find him harsh and shrill (as his surname might suggest); nonetheless, he certainly gets inside the role.
Obviously in much better sound than Karajan's mono recording of twenty years earlier, and blessed with a Walther in Kollo whom Hans Hopf makes sound like a god, this is a clear first choice for any Karajan fan who can tolerate the vocal defects. Personally, although I liked this more than I had predicted, as it turned out to be more than the sum of its parts, my first choice remains with Kubelik.